Maine is considered by most Americans to be fairly well “out there,” located as it is at the northeastern edge of the country. Hell, my family and I feel that way sometimes, and we live here. The reality of the typical Maine experience, though, remains quite safe and familiar. Even to the inveterate summer visitor, the state map might as well depict only the stretch of perforated coastline bounded to the east by the Atlantic and to the west by Interstate 95. Lobsters and lighthouses?That’s where you’ll find ’em, right next to the Starbucks.
Which is all fine, until we face the fact that Maine’s best golf courses lie amid the peaks and valleys of the vast interior, north and west of the well-trod path. This was the draw for our family adventure: a golf trip more akin to the Appalachian Trail than to some stretch of antiseptic interstate.
We hit the road early to procure a proper map in Yarmouth, at the DeLorme map store, home to the impressively detailed Maine Atlas & Gazetteer and to Eartha, an enormous, two-story-tall globe that spins in the lobby. Mesmerized by the Andes depicted in such fine relief, we finally pull ourselves away. We have a tee time.
About an hour north of the Portland International Jetport—curiously named since it handles no international flights but still convenient to all East Coast and Midwestern hubs—we exit I-95 and officially leave the grid.
Belgrade Lakes Golf Club, ten minutes away, is a fitting point of departure. It’s an expertly groomed Clive Clark track with no driving range and no restaurant—just first-class golf and killer views of the surrounding lake region. Belgrade Lakes’ ingenious routing gallops over very hilly terrain, but it never feels forced or tricked up, and the ancillary flourishes—sleepers in the bunker faces, sprawling fields of boulders flanking broad fairways, fifteen-minute tee-time intervals—give the round a privileged, idiosyncratic quality.
Afterward we stop by the Sunset Grill, which is just down the hill from the club and offers an early taste of the rustic up-country to come. Wood paneling. Flannel. Fries doused in gravy. Lousy cellphone coverage. After a few beers we segue to the village of Belgrade Lakes and the Wings Hill Inn, just the sort of quaint B&B you’d expect but with a delectable bonus: It’s owned and operated by a couple who met while studying at the Culinary Institute of America.
The next morning we venture north on Route 27, through the aging mill towns of New Sharon, Weeks Mills and Farmington (home to Chester Greenwood, inventor of earmuffs). This is the Maine of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, a landscape of nineteenth-century boomtowns with little trace of their former glory except the powerful rivers that still course through them. We lunch at Hugs, a cozy Italian joint in Carrabassett Valley, before turning left, less than a mile down the road, into Sugarloaf USA.
When it comes to modern mountain golf, Sugarloaf Golf Club wrote the book. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the Loaf opened in 1986. Folks have yet to stop talking about the two-hundred-foot tee-to-green plummets, the holes located so close to the Carrabassett River that conversation is drowned out by the raging currents, the seven different river crossings on the back nine alone. With a lusty slope of 151 from the black tees (it’s a slightly more sane 146 from the blues), Sugarloaf is beauty and beast in one rarefied package.
The ski resort at Sugarloaf USA and the town of Kingfield offer all kinds of hotel options, but we drive on to Rangeley, following a ribbon of river road compromised by eons of frost heaves. It’s a short trip, just forty-five minutes, but it’s here, a dozen clicks up the Carrabassett, deep in the heart of the Bigelow Range and gaining elevation, that we feel most remote, that we could plunge off an S-curve into the woods below and no one would find us until spring. We cross the Appalachian Trail and consult the Gazetteer for confirmation that we haven’t missed our turn onto Route 16. This far out, numbered highways are like safety blankets, signs that something, anything (a house, a town, Quebec) waits at the other end.
We arrive in time for sunset drinks high above Rangeley Lake on the deck of Loon Lodge, a supersize and rustically elegant log cabin. We’ll spend two nights here—an inspired decision, for the place is central to all things Rangeley and the dining is superb, serving the sort of fare you’d expect (such as fresh venison) and some you wouldn’t (wild mushroom strudel).
Maine’s sparsely populated up-country is split between slowly calcifying mill towns and modern ski communities like Kingfield and Bethel, home to Sunday River (more on that later). Rangeley is a bit different. Folks have summered here for more than a century, and it’s home to the smaller, more unassuming Saddleback ski area, which explains the lack of condos and the retention of a genuine soul.